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Ping An has suggested that the market value it as a tech player, but some analysts say that would be premature.   © Reuters
Business

China's Ping An Insurance aims to join Alibaba, Tencent ranks as tech behemoth

Fintech shift accelerates amid tightened regulations

JOYCE HO, Nikkei staff writer | China

HONG KONG -- Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings and Baidu have long been recognized as China's technology leaders. Is Ping An Insurance Group ready to join that powerhouse league?

That question may not be as far-fetched as it seems, and many investors are watching closely as China's largest insurance company by market capitalization -- twice that of Baidu -- shifts its business strategy toward tech.

It would not be unreasonable to conclude that Ping An Chairman Peter Ma Mingzhe may have his eye on the financial-technology success by the two other business leaders that make up the "three Ma's" of Chinese conglomerates: Alibaba founder Jack Ma Yun's Ant Financial and Pony Ma Huateng's Tencent Finance.

The 29-year-old Shenzhen-based Ping An is increasingly trading like a tech stock. The company's shares, which trade in both Hong Kong and Shanghai, have more than doubled since the beginning of the year.

Aside from wagering their hopes on the growing need for insurance among China's middle-class and aging population, investors have been keen to cash in on Ping An's latent value -- in particular its growing technological prowess and advantage as a conglomerate.

Along with state-owned Citic Group and China Everbright Group, Ping An is one of the few companies in China with a license to offer a full suite of financial services, including insurance, banking, trusts, securities, futures and financial leasing.

Since inscribing technology into its strategy in 2008, Ping An has built and bought a wide array of online-to-offline assets, including those in healthcare, autos, real estate and personal finance. The massive amount of information it has collected through years of insurance underwriting, including policyholder's health data, also helps the company in biometrics, artificial intelligence and other data-powered technology.

Ping An's number of monthly active users for its mobile application totaled 64 million at the end September, compared with Alibaba's 549 million monthly active users and Tencent's 980 million monthly active users for their core offerings. Ping An's total individual customers who holds its financial products stood at 126 million.

"As it provides one-stop financial services and in-depth understanding of customers via its proprietary big data and technology, Ping An creates a closed loop for customer attraction, migration and retention, facilitating cross-sales and upsales of its financial products," Iris Tan, senior equity analyst at Morningstar, wrote in a note last month.

"This model is unique and difficult to duplicate," she said, adding that the company has achieved a 67% success rate in cross-sales to existing customers, which contributed more than 40% to the company's new premiums, or income from underwriting.

Value surpasses Allianz, AXA

Investors' enthusiasm for Ping An has lifted its market capitalization to 1.58 trillion Hong Kong dollars ($202 billion) as of Dec. 21, exceeding the valuation of many global insurers, including Allianz of Germany at 86.54 billion euros ($102.6 billion) and France's AXA at 60.91 billion euros. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, which also derives a sizable portion of its income from the insurance business, has a market cap of $487.8 billion.

Ping An's early success most likely would not have been possible without Peter Ma Mingzhe, its chairman, who has maintained a good relationship with Beijing since the company was founded in 1988 in Shekou, an industrial zone in Shenzhen that was developed by China Merchants Group, which dates to the late Qing dynasty and was later taken over by the Chinese Communist Party.

Ping An Insurance Group Chairman and CEO Peter Ma Mingzhe has maintained a good relationship with Beijing since the company was founded in 1988.   © Reuters

Ma, who was 33 at the time and deputy manager of a social insurance company in Shekou, proposed to China Merchants to set up an insurance fund for workers in Shekou. That required a commercial insurance license, which led to the creation of a new insurance company that eventually became Ping An.

The People's Bank of China approved the establishment of Ping An as China's first joint-stock insurance company, with state-owned Industrial & Commercial Bank of China holding a 51% stake and China Merchants 49%.

After Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley came on board with a $70 million investment in Ping An in 1994, making the insurer the first foreign-funded mainland financial institution, Ma went on to build the company's securities and trust units.

Although China's State Council in 1993 had directed that various types of financial services -- specifically banking, brokers, trusts, life insurance and property insurance -- be run separately, Ma held to his vision that Ping An should work toward becoming a one-stop financial services provider. While other financial companies were forced to break apart their businesses over the following years, Ping An remained whole.

In 2002, Ping An received official notice that it could operate various financial services and began its restructuring as a holding company. It also made HSBC its largest shareholder that year by selling it a nearly 10% stake ahead of its listing in Hong Kong. Its initial public offering, raising HK$14.3 billion, was the city's largest in 2004.

HSBC sold its stake, which had grown to 15.6%, in 2012 to various subsidiaries of Thai billionaire Dhanin Chearavanont's Charoen Pokphand Group for $9.4 billion. The Thai company is now the biggest investor in Ping An, holding about 10% stake, larger than various state-owned investment arms, including that of the Shenzhen city government. 

Ping An is now the second-largest shareholder in HSBC, through its asset-management arm.

Ping An has grown steadily since it went public, achieving a compound annual growth rate of nearly 26% in net profit between 2004 and 2016. It recorded a decline profit only in 2008 amid the global recession.

Its net profit for the first nine months of this year was 66.32 billion yuan ($10.02 billion), up 17.4% from a year earlier. The value of new business for its life and health insurance segment in the period grew 35.5%, while the insurance business as a whole, including property and casualty, contributed 71.3% to its bottom line. More than 95% of Ping An's revenue comes from mainland China.

As measured by premiums, Ping An is China's second-largest insurer in both the life and the property-casualty segments, behind, respectively, China Life Insurance and PICC -- both state-owned companies.

Finance to technology

For the coming decade, Ma envisions Ping An as a full-blown tech company, a shift that has been long in the making. He established Ping An Technology in 2008 and has invested more than 50 billion yuan, or 1% of its annual revenue, in biometrics, big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain and cloud computing.

Its facial recognition system has a 99.8% accuracy rate, Jessica Tan Sin-yin, Ping An's chief operations officer and chief information officer, said at an investors' gathering in Shenzhen last month, adding that it helps lower identity fraud and reduces the time for loan and insurance-policy application processing to minutes.

Its technology also is able to assess vehicle damage remotely, based on photographs uploaded by policyholders using mobile apps.

At the same investors' meeting, Jason Yao Bo, Ping An's chief financial officer, said such capabilities will support the company's asset-light approach -- meaning it is looking to generate more income from selling proprietary technology to other service providers, and using technology to increase efficiency, than capitalizing on financial assets.

Ping An says its technology is used at Shenzhen's international airport, a post-graduate examination site, and healthcare centers for processing security screening and identity checks. It is a convenient technology that enables efficiency, but could also be a double-edged sword to enhance further potential infringement on privacy.

The company also targeting China's financial-services sector through a cloud-based product called OneConnect. In addition to helping small and midsize lenders establish a digital presence and providing other services, OneConnect employs blockchain technology for China's enourmous -- yet fragmented -- interbank market, where instruments such as cash bonds, repurchase agreements and certificates of deposit are traded.

"We charge by volume. It's a pay-as-you-go model," Tan said, comparing OneConnect to a financial-leasing platform that capitalizes on interbank transactions. She said that allows Ping An to participate in China's growing banking sector without bearing the costs for traditional lending, such as meeting reserve requirements.

OneConnect has already linked 400 banks, 20 insurance companies and 2,000 nonbank financial institutions, and it has handled transaction volume valued at 8 trillion yuan, the company says.

"Investors can look forward to the company starting to earn a return for the company's historical investments in tech, as well as the benefits that technology is giving the company in growing and improving the profitability of their core businesses," David Millhouse, head of China research at Forsyth Barr, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Benefits for Ping An's core business, Millhouse said, will be seen in cost reductions, improved risk management and a better customer experience.

Tech valuation

Ping An, which trades at 16 times its earnings, earlier this year suggested that the market value it as a tech player, which normally enjoys a much higher price-to-earnings ratio. But some analysts say that would be premature.

"Valuating it as a tech company is way too early," Scott Russell, Macquarie Group's head of financials research for Asia, said in an interview. "There are certainly elements of the Ping An group that should be valued as peers to technology companies and internet businesses -- once sufficient financial data is available."

Russell believes the value of Ping An's tech business will be clearer after Lufax Holdings and Ping An Good Doctor -- two of its flagships tech units -- file their IPO prospectuses. Both are expected to debut in Hong Kong next year, although the company has not indicated the timing.

Lufax, which was founded in 2011 and now has a value of $18.5 billion, is a Shanghai-based lending platform that has evolved into a financial products marketplace. It is China's largest peer-to-peer lending platform by transaction volume and loans outstanding as of Dec. 15, according to research firm Wangdaizhijia.

Ping An's Lufax Holdings unit is a lending platform that has evolved into a financial products marketplace.   © Reuters

Last year, Lufax was restructured to integrate the financial-asset exchanges in Shenzhen and Chongqing and micro-financing company Puhui Financial. The move was in response to the government's push to extend banking services to individuals and institutions without access.

Ping An Good Doctor, a healthcare portal started in 2015 with a value of $3 billion, enables real-time medical-resources sharing and initial-diagnoses services. With 500 million daily active users, Good Doctor dovetails with Ping An Wanjia Healthcare, a unit that serves tens of thousands of private clinics in China with data management.

Japanese internet company SoftBank plans to take a stake of 5% to 10% each in OneConnect, Good Doctor and Lufax through its $97 billion Vision Fund, according to a recent report by Bloomberg.

Ping An representatives were unavailable to repond to questions from Nikkei Asian Review.

Tightened regulations

Ping An's pivot to technology comes amid a greater push by the government to discipline China's financial sector. Apart from curbing sales of universal insurance policies, which tend to be a disguise for high-yielding investment products, regulators are also lifting capital requirements for banks by forcing disclosure of off-balance sheet assets. New rules to force companies to deleverage also affects asset-management companies and other corners of China's shadow financing network.

Ken Shih, China banking sector analyst at DBS Vickers Securities, said Ping An is not greatly affected by the stricter regulatory environment, as the company had long revised its strategy to sell more protection-type insurance products.

The Shanghai Ping An Financial Centre. More than 95% of the company's revenue comes from mainland China.   © Getty Images

He also noted that Ping An Bank, though still wrestling with declining interest income and bad debts, is on the recovery track as it shifts its focus to retail customers. The Shenzhen-listed unit accounted for 17% of the group's net profit as of September.

In line with other analysts, Shih applies a 15% conglomerate discount to Ping An's share price, factoring in the spin-off of Ping An Securities, announced in June 2016. Conglomerate discount generally refers to the value of subsidiaries under a corporate umbrella that have yet to be recognized by the market.

Ping An is looking at promising healthcare and fintech startups outside China with its $1 billion Global Voyager Fund, launched in May. It also profited from the $1.5 billion IPO of ZhongAn Online Property and Casualty Insurance -- China's first online-only insurer set up with Alibaba and Tencent -- in September.

And its acquisition of a 5% stake in HSBC on Dec. 6, which made the Chinese company the second-largest shareholder of the global bank, not only marked a symbolic ownership shift, but also its budding ascendancy on the global arena. 

"Ping An gets it," Paul Schulte, an analyst and founder of Schulte Research, told the NAR. "Many other banks and insurance [companies] are still sleepwalking."

It remains to be seen whether Ping An is able to capitalize on this advantage.

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